Detroit Tigers fans shag home run balls at spring training

Detroit Free Press

LAKELAND, Fla. — About a dozen Detroit Tigers fans spread across the grass beyond the outfield fence, waiting for a home run ball.

“Here one comes!” somebody said, as a baseball came screaming through the air as the Tigers took batting practice.

“I got it!”

“Watch out for the tree!”

Michela Deschene, 43, of Lakeland, caught the ball.

“It’s just having fun and enjoying the Florida sun,” Deschene said.

Her dog, Kimba, a 9½-year-old poodle-basset hound, chases down the balls, too.

“Just watching baseball, having fun, talking to people out here and meeting new friends,” Deschene said.

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It is one of the endearing quirks of Tigers spring training. A group of fans show up every day and catch home run balls during batting practice behind the backfields.

“In an average year, I get 30 to 40 balls,” said Bill Webster, 64, who lived in Three Rivers but is retired from American Axle and lives in Lakeland. “Some days you might get none. And some days, you might get three or four.”

It is part competition, part social activity, part hobby.

The fans are trying to beat each other, but also trying to get the balls before Mike Nichols, who works for the Tigers. Nichols sets up beyond the fence and tries to salvage as many balls as possible for the team and then throws them back onto the field.

“He’s pretty cool,” Deschene said. “I talk to him almost every day.”

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There is some etiquette. Everybody shares the balls until everybody gets one and they often give the balls away to kids.

“Usually we will call it, but there’s a few people that we call ball hogs that will run into you,” Deschene said.

This year, she has about 30 balls but she has no idea who hit them.

“I don’t even know,” she said. “I can’t tell from where I’m standing.”

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Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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